Whatever “fun” there was in the sexual revolution was squandered on my parents’ generation. My generation got the short end of the stick.
— Phil Vischer, Me, Myself, and Bob
After five seasons of Californication, I was ready to throw in the towel. It’s not an uncommon experience in the era of streaming. You pick up a series on Netflix, commence the binge-watching, and get attached to the characters and get involved in their lives — only to throw your remote across the room in frustration when you realize they’re going to keep making the same mistakes, over and over, forever.
TV shows (in the United States, at least) tend to run until they’re no longer profitable, which in practice means they play until the writers run out of ideas and the shows become unwatchable. I also have a pet theory that every “dramedy” is born carrying the seeds of its own destruction — that eventually the character development necessary for drama will undermine the repeated failures necessary for comedy. (See NBC’s Chuck for an obvious example of this.) Neither of those things entirely accounts for why Californication nearly lost me in the end, though.
In the end, it was because the characters seemed a little too realistic.
Unchecked expression of sexual desires tends to harm the most vulnerable among us.
If you’re unfamiliar, the series — which ran on Showtime from 2007 t0 2014 — depicts the trials and travails of bad-boy novelist Hank Moody (portrayed by David Duchovny and his unfairly chiseled features) after he moves from New York to L.A. to pursue Hollywood glamor, only to see his dark, cynical novel God Hates Us All transformed into the treacly romantic comedy Crazy Little Thing Called Love.
The setup functions mainly as a vessel for broad satire of the sexual and economic excesses of southern California, and most of the drama centers around Hank’s perpetual inability to keep his pants on around attractive females. The series pulls most of its pathos from Hank’s long-suffering daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin) and his baby mama and perpetual love interest Karen Van Der Beek (Natascha McElhorne); his hapless, porn-addicted agent Charlie Runkle (Evan Handler) shows up occasionally to make Hank seem put-together by comparison.
The largely Gen-X cast deals with the aftermath of the sexual revolution, in which the only real goal is to create a life that’s personally satisfying. This leads to a revolving door of marriages, cohabitations, and one-night-stands for each of the characters while the chronologically adolescent Becca struggles to create what stability she can for herself and her emotionally adolescent parents. Meanwhile, Hank battles writer’s block, Hollywood ennui, and statutory rape charges involving Karen’s ex-fiancé’s daughter (long story).
The series held my attention for its first five seasons because it wasn’t hard to care about what it wanted me to care about: Would Hank ever be able to make things work with Karen? Would he ever become the father Becca needed? Would Charlie ever stop getting into improbable sexual scrapes and make things work out with his on-again-off-again wife, Marcy (Pamela Adlon, who I was surprised to discover is also the voice of Bobby Hill)?
It lost my attention when it became obvious that the answer to all those questions was, “Nah.”
By the beginning of season six, the series had become predictable enough to set your watch to. It was clear that Charlie would never overcome his sexual fetishes or his bad social instincts, and it was obvious that anytime an attractive female walked on screen, she would be in Hank’s bed within five minutes — leading to the inevitable exasperated sighs and eye-rolls from Karen and Becca. Karen and Hank would never “get the timing right” on their relationship (i.e., Hank would never learn to keep it in his pants, and even during those moments when he seemed to have done so, Karen would be married or engaged to a marginally more stable man), and Becca would finish nearly every episode complaining about having to be the “adult” in the room.
As I’ve said, this sort of self-repetition is probably a fate that eventually befalls all TV shows that run long enough, and maybe dramedies in particular; there will forever be that unavoidable tension between the need to develop your characters and the need to maintain the characters as viewers have come to love them. But though it was frustrating to me as a viewer, it wasn’t exactly hard to believe (even if much of it was exaggerated for satirical purposes). After all, how often does someone really change? There was something true about Californication, even though it wasn’t satisfying.
The truth about the human brain is it’s extraordinarily lazy. It takes a huge amount of energy to make decisions in the moment, so the brain likes to cultivate habits. Most of those habits tend to be harmless — like brushing your teeth every morning or eating lunch at the same time every day — but sometimes they can be dangerous to cultivate as well. For instance, there’s some evidence that getting into the habit of taking out stress on inanimate objects can be dangerous, since it conditions you to express your anger through violence. So it goes with sexual habits; how sexual impulses are expressed is often determined by habit, and those habits can be cultivated to be either beneficial or detrimental.
There’s an old xkcd comic strip titled “Drama” which seems more insightful every time I come across it. In the opening panel, three characters are chatting and one says, “Man, sex has all these crazy social rules. They just create drama.” A second character responds, “Let’s agree to change them, and make sex simple!” In the second panel, they “change the rules” while the third panel shows a line graph charting a skyrocketing amount of “drama” immediately after the rule change. In the final panel, one of the characters — having slammed a door behind him in terror — observes, “Holy sh*t — guys — people are complicated!“
It’s a point that’s hard to argue with, and you don’t have to be religious (as far as I know, Randall Munroe, who writes xkcd, isn’t) to imagine why people would have profound emotions tied up in sexuality. Sexuality is vitally important to the survival of the species; it would be weirder if people didn’t get super worked-up about it. And those emotions are real, whether we’d like them to be or not. We see this in Hank and Karen, who routinely feel wounded by each other’s sexual indiscretions despite the fact that they probably spend a total of five minutes on-screen in an “exclusive” relationship with each other.
The sexual revolution was seen by many as a casting off of arbitrary, oppressive rules; with the tyranny of religious prudishness gone, people would be able to express their emotions physically as they saw fit. As with the anger example, however, the gap in the thinking there was the assumption that all emotions are intrinsically good and that all expressions of them are valid and healthy. Hank Moody — whose sexual liberation routinely reduced his daughter and would-be wife to tears — arguably demonstrates that this is far from the case. Unchecked expression of sexual desires tends to harm the most vulnerable among us.
A year ago, I compared the traditional Christian liturgies to latticework built for vines to climb. The lattice itself is dead and rigid, but it exists to guide the vine into the sun. (There are infinite directions for the vine to grow, but all except one of them result in a vine sprawled in the mud.) Those who reject liturgies see them as unnecessary rules that force their faith into a box, but the purpose of a liturgy is to train, not imprison. Seasons like Advent and Lent teach us to wait patiently for the Lord and to deny ourselves; kneeling for prayer and repeating “Lord, have mercy” teach us to humble ourselves before God. The liturgies teach us how to cultivate good, true, and beneficial habits in a way that fetishized emotion and spontaneity never will.
A Christian ethic — including a Christian sexual ethic — is perhaps best understood in the same way. The purpose of Christian guideposts for sexual expression is not to stifle or imprison it, but to guide it into a mode that will hurt the fewest and benefit the most — both in this generation and the generations to come.
I decided to stick with Californication to its finale, and I’m somewhat glad I did because I got to see what the last big plot twist was: Becca, now age 21, was getting married. It’s fairly typical sensationalist-stunt-to-maybe-save-the-show-from-cancellation-type stuff, but it also made a strange sort of sense. Having been broken inside, repeatedly, by her parents’ never-ending adolescences, she makes a last-ditch effort to create a bit of stability for herself. The bruised vine, sick of being trampled in the mud, reaches out for a lattice to hold onto. Having tasted the bitterness of pure freedom, all she longs for is a bit of structure.
In some ways, it’s a strange concluding note to seven years of sex-and-drug-fueled mayhem for its own sake, but it seems appropriate as well. By taking a step toward adulthood, Becca is finally able to do what her parents never could: escape the adolescent tar pits of L.A.